I have greatly enjoyed reading this book. Aditya Shankar’s language is highly elaborate, versatile, philosophical, thought-provoking, and full of beautiful imagery and wordplays. The topics the author explores are highly varied and intermingle with each other. These are the four main topics I have found in the majority of the poems and flash fiction:
1- Social critique of inequality, of the lack of human rights and of the environmental destruction.
2- The role of the poets and artists as preservers of words and values.
4- Love, human relationships and childhood memories.
1- The social critique of inequality, lack of human rights and environmental destruction
This critique is mostly of the place where Aditya Shankar lives, India, but also of the whole world. We only need to take the poem that gives title to the whole book, “XXL”, as an example: “stop turning my river into a sewer!” read the placards of protesters. This beautifully written thought provoking poem is a critique of labour exploitation and of the clothes factories that pollute the environment, where commercial interest is in producing clothes for “the sculpted mannequins” or for “ the rich, zero-sized gym-goers”, and where the rest of the population are “obese” and “pregnant bellies”. The ending lines are very powerful:
“the rest of us are their placards; there
is no such thing as publicity”
“Prisoners of Love” also deals with social inequality. It talks about objects made by people working in poor conditions: “… these artifacts are just counts from daily lives of manufacturing units”.
In “Divinations I Personally Know About” the message is clear and poignant. It is where we see some of the strongest social critique describing the poor-rich gap:
“I still have only one slice of tomato in my
bread, and call it a sandwich”
“the ones with diamonds in their shoe soles thirst for
the blood of those of us with empty pockets”
“Posture” has beautiful imagery and flow. The message is also powerful. The poem is about what the first person narrator of the poem wants to be in India. All along the poem there is beauty but also harshness. These lines are very poignant:
“A love, concealed with the lifting lid
of a simmering rice pot, from which
we serve kid-sized portions with
burnt hands and hungry stomachs.”
The destruction of the environment reappears in “New Enlightenment”, which is about what a tree has to suffer because of human beings as world’s greatest predators.
“Mechanical Nirvana” tells the story of a cycle stolen from a boy. The object is being wonderfully personified as it is literally looking for the boy. Again there is social critique; the car is above all and has the power that eclipses everything else like a cycle that remains unperceived. Meanwhile there is smog and pollution. The situation of the boy and the stolen cycle are compared to a heartbroken lover and an aged widower. This piece has lovely imagery.
“Migrants of the World, Unite!” reflects on the consequences of today’s global capitalism on migrants and on their thoughts and behaviors.
“A Ragpicker Dreams up the Sky” is a defense of the abused with beautifully poignant images and a powerful message, which tells us to listen to this person:
“He is the one you always wanted to talk to:
the loving one you wanted to take into your attic for a wild kiss,
the one with pain in his eyes and love in his tongue,
the head turner, who walked past during your childhood.”
“Peeling Onions” is a heart-felt critique of men abusing women through the description of the first person narrator peeling onions. This action becomes a metaphor for peeling yourself, the bad things you have to remove. It is catharctic and has a thought-provoking ending:
“My onion tears masquerade as grief
for media and courtroom trials of victims,
we wish to excrete from our happy lives.”
“Yellow” and “The Gondola Hovercraft// Urban Rain” are two poems that escribe nature connected with social critique, where the destructive and corrupted hand of human beings stands as the evil element:
“The new yellow is white –
the snow that conceals the black boulders
the moon that smiles a very dark night”
The last line is especially beautiful and provides a perfect closure.
“The Gondola Hovercraft// Urban Rain” is about the rain in the city with traffic jams (cars, bicycles…). A car is like a gondola hovercraft. The last verses are very lyrical:
“Urban rain, an elegy
for the wet bird with tiring wings
a faraway spring”
2- The role of poets and artists in aour society
Many pieces in the book deal with the role of the poets and artists and about how they feel and try to survive in a hostile world. For instance, in “Journey to the Center of the Fruit” the poet is compared to a person living in an appartment with open pores, like a fruit, where bugs get into: “I might be the seed of the fruit, the bug saves for the last.”
“In the Mood for Love” (After Wong Kar-wai) deals with the life of the artists, love and harshness in a big city, Hong Kong. The reader seems to be addressed with “you”. However, one could also interpret the “you” being used by the first person narrator as a sort of inner dialogue.
“Of Poets” is a very eloquent defense of poets; it is sad, poignant, as the following lines:
“Their anti-fascist mouths, sutured. Their legs, tied to the
prison bars, stunted. Their face veiled in sedition, banished.”
“The Balance Sheet of a Poet” states the reality of poets in the world we live, where you have to barter to survive. This piece is also a defense of the poet.
“At the End of the Last Idea” is futuristic, dystopian, describing a world where true values are lost and where science is all over the place. It has a very powerful ending with another great defense of the poets: “Shocking the social scientists, only the romantic poets will travel from village to village, still singing about birds, rivers and flowers.”
In “To the Crane, Flying Past My Car” the voice of the poem says thanks for all the experiences gathered and learnt, whether good or bad. The following lines are a lovely tribute to poetry:
“Thanks for showing us the shape of poems
if they had wings”
Poets are also described by the author as the preservers of words against the world catastrophes as in “Archaelogy” and as in “Human are Wildlife Photographers Living Together with Pets”.
Poets are contemplators too. “What is left when a bird flies off from the trees branches?” is a very deep poem about the poet not being ahead of times, but just someone who contemplates the world with inaction:
“I stand and watch,
like a helpless witness”
The ending goes back to the beginning of this piece:
“when hope is erased from humanity,
I am without an answer. I know,
I am not ahead of times.”
“I believe I’m Werner Herzog” is about a human rights activist visiting India and seeing its inequality. The narrator of the poem tells this person to observe everything carefully, which is also what a poet does, a person who contemplates.
Poets are compared to birds in “A Bird Recognises a Poet”, a lovely short poem; birds and poets have something in common: they both need “space to fly”.
“The Lives of Others” is another beautiful poem that finds inspiration in Florian Henckel Von Donnersmarck’s film Das Leben der Anderen. Aditya Shankar seems to make an analogy between some characters of the movie and the role of the poet in general, that is, how you see yourself as a poet in a hostile world. The writers and artists of the movie are people constantly living in a hideout, prossecuted by the communist government. They are not free, nor is the main character who observes them. He is also a contemplator. The whole poem has lovely imagery such as the following lines:
“He sees the lives of others
looking into his own eyes –
a projector without film,
unreeling in a packed theater.”
In “Measuring Achievements” harshness appears connected with death through lines that are beautiful and poignant at the same time:
the waterfalls of blood in my body, the arrival
of death like the hiss of an alligator rising from
“Mortuary Warehouse Palindrome” is also about death. A dead body is found in a sack of a warehouse that ends up being equalled to a mortuary:
“The warehouse, a mortuary of silence.
The mortuary, a warehouse of silence.”
“Secret” is a concise reflective poem about a dead man. We see the irony of the word “secret” while the dead man’s diary has been found, all his possessions, activities, 4.999 FB friends, big villa, etc. The final message is thought-provoking. The author critiques the modern world, where digitalization has ended our privacy in life and death:
“The man who died yesterday
is a fool, like us.”
“Three” is very symbolic and thought-provoking as there is social critique of injustice and inequality. It talks about the three bottoms of a lake. Death and harshness appear again as the first bottom is where dead bodies are. The second bottom contains “water black holes that do not let anything escape”, and the third bottom, “a reflection of the second” is “…where the boats hide their/
corroded bottoms in water, and you sit on/ one of those boats”
“Geometry of Solitude” is an original poem describing geometric forms associated with different aspects of a hard life in India such as pain, hunger and thirst. There are very powerful verses like these:
“Pain is a
that pierces my leg.”
And these lines:
“Hunger is a circular plate
of red rice, with a topping
of sambhar. “
“Thirst is a circular bottle
of cold water, straight out
of the earthen jug.”
The final lines are very moving:
“In the ignorant nights,
in a deep sleep,
fears, dreams, lust
come marching –
Along unknown roads,
in unknown shapes.”
“The Clown’s Bicycle” is very beautiful prose-poetry, deeply reflective and with lovely images. The clown becomes a metaphor or symbol of the individual and of his role in a world full of harshness and disasters, a world that lacks humanity. He sees himself in “a journey of decline”, where “his movements from happy pedaling to painful fall read more like the mudras of a classic dance illustrating a cycle of the great fall”. However, he keeps his role, that of making people laugh, entertaining them, because that is easier than telling them the truth of our world’s permanent injustice and harshness. It is easier than facing facts. Aditya Shankar establishes a wonderful comparison between the clown and the main character from the Italian film La vita è bella (Life is Beautiful). The clown “consoles co-voyagers like Guido”.
4- Love, human relationships and childhood memories.
These topics appear in pieces like “Sylvia”, Thirty Years”, “If This is No More”, “Sign Off” and
“Sylvia” is a short piece dealing with love and departure. These lines are especially beautiful:
“My hands stayed in the pocket but my heart clenched as the train slowly rolled out of the station. Her eyes became the trail of a river that taught me how to canoe through dreams”
“Thirty Years” is about a finished love story, “If This is No More” evokes past childhood and first kiss, and “Sign Off” describes a possible love relationship that remains unfullfilled.
“Departures” is about the fear you learn throughout the experiences of your life.
“Expecting a Weary Father to Return Home” tells memories of an empty house where the first person narrator remembers mother and father. The imagery is very beautiful.
“Hair Dryer” is also about the memories of past childhood, school, eagerness to learn, hope for freedom and rebellion in a hard situation, and learning in “leaking classrooms”. The hair dryer becomes a metaphor for freedom, as the kind of freedom an airplane evokes. The hair dryer is also a metaphor for a burning flame in the eyes of eager children: “a flame, for things the world was yet to see”.
“River reader” is lovely prose poetry where the river is described as “horizontal rain”. There are memories of past experiences, childhood, superheroes, and how life gets harder with the passing of time. The ending is very powerful:
“We book rooms at river facing jungle lodges to see horizontal tears for a long time, along with children.”
“There is hope in this moment and there is pain. It’s like a still painting. We don’t want to break it.”
“Loved” is a beautiful poem in its apparent simplicity, but wonderfully worded lines and profound message. It talks about the risks of loving everything in life too much. The last lines are very powerful:
“I loved myself, but
it killed my soul.
I am afraid to love anymore.”
“The Sky is a Comic Strip, and the Cloud is a Thought Bubble Waiting for Words” is prose poetry with exquisite imagery, very musical. It is also about love that needs a revival of passion comparable to the poet’s passion for writing:
“Let’s eat into each other’s love with the gluttony of a user counting down the trial period of his commercial software, akin to a poet who feels with each passing image, this is his last.”
“Couper Monter: Editor’s Cut” begins with deep reflections about the world, the poet, the reader, where the world goes on with its many problems of hunger and injustice. Then there is a series of transitions in a poet’s life from early single years with the first sexual encounters till that person is married and settled in the United States.
The last piece of the book is “Elsewhere”, a beautiful homage to a mother and the memories of her. The beginning is very powerful, full of lyricism. It is about the passing of time, where mother takes “a leap into the past to be at her native village” and where “a silent mountain flows as a reflection in the stream. Is that what you call the time that passed?”
Aditya Shankar’s writing style
The use of irony and sarcasm to emphasize injustice in our world
Aditya Shankar sometimes uses irony and sarcasm, especially in the following pieces to stress injustice:
“The Poem, as a Console Game” is about refugees and war zones. A refugee prosecuted for his ideas and his writing is treated brutally, hung upside down, beaten, many hitmen pointing at him. This flash fiction is very originally written as if it were a console game, where the reader takes the role of this refugee and needs to achieve different levels.
“A Scientific Study on the Strangeness of Social Ambitions” is another original piece where all the different insects appear like a nightmare: flies trapped in cars, ants on car wheels, coackroaches hiding under your body and spiders weaving webs on the mobile tower.
“Kaizen”, whose title is the Japanese word for improvement, is a reflection about the problems for those who want to write about the truth of the many situations of injustice in our world. The irony is that the author wishes to improve a piece that cannot be improved. As soon as the author adds content the piece will be either censored, or the author himself runs the risk of being prosecuted or jailed, or the piece considered inadequate or dated.
“F” is a very imaginative poem where the letter F is personified. The letter is being punished, and struck down with a dagger. This carries the consequence of making the words starting with F disappear:
“There was no blood, but asterisks,
special characters, rebellion,
splattered from the mutilated body:
Then, #f**k you!”
More on Aditya Shankar’s writing style
As I mentioned in the beginning of this review, Shankar’s style contains beautiful imagery. Some pieces are just lovely to read even if it is simply to enjoy their exquisite language and images such as “In Praise of the Broken Dimension”, which is imaginative, original, musical and with beautiful wordplays. “The Stray Dog’s Tail”, an original piece, “The Behavioral Science of Everyday Objects”, which tells about what a chair can evoke in relationship with the lives of many different people, and “Bodies in Downtown”, a poem about a vengeful boy with beautiful imagery too.
A highly philosophical language is another characteristic of Shankar’s writing as in “Place”, a description of the city and the relationship with the first person narrator, who feels very much like a rabbit in its burrow. He does not fit in. The city changes in bad manner. This is an existentialist poem:
“I’m yet to befriend the designer
“Where” is also philosophical and reflective; the author poses questions written in a chain about life’s meaning.
“At the Town Hall Junction” talks about a man on a mancycle with an ant at the tip of its beard. The philosophical content is expressed by the idea of pedalling as an action connected to the world evolving.
“A Desert Tortoise” is about a zoologist between 1807 and 1873 who finds a desert tortoise. There is deep reflection on religion and God being considered cheaters. The zoologist says goodbye to the tortoise and expects to reencounter it in a cool valley with water, an image of hope.
“The Ten Thousand Buddhas Monastery” has also lovely images. Indian words appear like
Masala dosa, a dessert with rice flour and legumes. Masala is a spice mixture for cookery in India.
This work establishes a contrast between a Buddha temple, which represents the real values, and “the copies of our wordly griefs”.
“Before Calling Up the Customer Care” also belongs to the philosophical, reflective and highly spirtual pieces in this book. It is about the eternal dissociation of heart, mind and body:
“Who is superior?”
“Gravity Falls” explores the guilt or the bad conscience of not helping society as one should:
“but I obey the devil within, and fail to renounce the pleasure of little sins.”
“The Word” is a lovely poem about the word never being big enough to describe the world and human existence.
As a conclusion I would simply add that XXL is a marvelous book to read and reread for its lovely and original language, and for its depth of content and thought.
© October 2018 Marta Pombo Sallés